For the first time in over a decade, the United States isn’t one of the world’s top five executioners. Last year, the United States executed 20 people, the lowest number since 2006 and second-lowest since 1991, according to a new study by international rights group Amnesty International.
Still, the United States remains one of the top five “persistent” judicial executioners from 2012 to 2016, joining the proud ranks of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan.
China keeps its grim title as the world’s top executioner, with Amnesty International tracking thousands of deaths in 2016 (though the exact figure remains a state secret). A distant second was Iran, with at least 567 deaths, and Saudi Arabia with at least 154 executions. The United States executed 20 inmates last year, more than Somalia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Afghanistan, or Belarus (though out of a much larger population than in any of those countries.)
U.S. states last year also issued the lowest number of death sentences since 1973: 32. The 20 executions last year came in five states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Texas.
More countries are abolishing the death penalty or, failing that, simply not sentencing prisoners to death. In the past two decades, the number of countries that outlawed the death penalty surged from 64 to 104. Concurrently, the number of countries that carry out capital punishment declined from 40 to 23.
It’s welcome news for rights groups and activists who decry the death penalty. But in the United States, they warn that trend could quickly reverse.
“Executions could return with a vengeance in 2017,” said Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International. “The shocking number of executions scheduled over a ten-day period in Arkansas this April is a clear example of how quickly the picture can change,” she added, citing Arkansas’s controversial plan to kill eight men over an 11-day period this month with a supply of sedatives for lethal injections nearing their expiration dates.
The United States is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that still carries out judicial executions.